Boulevard of Broken Toilets : Porcelain From Discarded Johns Being Added as Ingredient of Asphalt


She's heard it all before, the bad jokes and the silly puns, and even offers a few herself, such as how using recycled toilets to build a street is going "from commode to road," and a way to get "a-head" in street repair.

But when the snickering stops, Cynthia Ferguson-Salvati, who is Escondido's water reclamation and conservation manager, argues that crushing discarded toilets for use in asphalt makes for good roads and good ecology.

Ferguson-Salvati was greeted with giggles a year ago, when she proposed the strange reincarnation of toilets into pavement. Now, though, she is flushed with professional pride as she gazes upon Hale Avenue, where 2,290 johns repose in tiny pieces 3 inches below the surface.

(Through some flawless logic, this quarter-mile-long toilet graveyard is in front of the city's sewage treatment plant.)

Engineers and contractors alike are pleased with the material's performance beneath the first street of recycled toilets in San Diego County. There are a few others like it in California--Santa Barbara had the state's first--and Santa Monica, San Jose and Goleta may follow.

"They'll laugh about it, but in the same breath they say it's a good project," Ferguson-Salvati said. "For a while, I ended up being kind of the toilet person, but it was all good-natured. . . . It was just kind of crazy enough that people were not against it. They were more amused and intrigued."

Where did all the toilets come from?

The Escondido project is a side effect of the County Water Authority's rebate program that pays homeowners $100 for replacing their high-water-consumption toilets with low-flow models.

About 17,850 toilet rebates have been issued countywide since the authority's program began in June, 1991, and next year's proposed $2-million budget will allow for another 16,700, according to officials.

Conversion from the old 5.5-gallon-per-flush toilets to the new 1.6-gallon fixtures allows the authority to cut by nearly $2 million its annual water purchase from the Metropolitan Water District.

That translates to about $100 saved per customer over about five years, said Cheryl Munoz, the authority's assistant manager for the rebate program.

About half of the old toilets collected in the county, including all of Escondido's, are crushed at the Enniss Enterprises facility in Lakeside, Munoz said. The other half are usually dismantled for salvageable parts by the plumbers who replace them.

Escondido's experiment has started something.

After the Hale Street project, Enniss Enterprises began selling recycled base--toilet porcelain that is mixed with re-crushed asphalt and concrete from road repairs--to contractors countywide.

Thus, pulverized toilets are starting to be used in road projects elsewhere in the county.

Eric Enniss, the sales manager, said recycled road base aggregate costs about the same as granite aggregate, and contractors have commented that it seems to compact even better.

But, back to Escondido's boulevard of broken toilets: Ferguson-Salvati got the idea when she heard that Santa Barbara had successfully used its rebate toilets for road base, the first such project in the state.

Also, she believed that finding a new use for bulky castoff toilets would relieve the burden on North County's already teeming landfill.

Bill Menchen, materials engineer for the Santa Barbara Department of Public Works, said the "potty-crete" got rave reviews there when used for a quarter-mile-long road widening nearly two years ago.

"We've had inquiries from as far away as Montreal and Texas," he said. California cities looking into the idea include Santa Monica, San Jose and Goleta, according to various officials.

The material is no longer used in Santa Barbara roads, Menchen noted, but only because contractors there don't have the necessary heavy-duty crushing equipment and it's too expensive to truck the toilets to the closest such company, in Oxnard, and bring the porcelain back.

Escondido's road workers finished the quarter-mile stretch of Hale Street in January. The project took 500 recycled Escondido toilets and 1,790 more culled from elsewhere in San Diego County.

Ferguson-Salvati said the city now requires contractors to use recycled materials in road base, with at least 10% of that being recycled porcelain. Two more such road projects are now out for bid.

One city road engineer quipped to Ferguson-Salvati: "A can a week is all we ask," she said, laughing. "The more fun we can make of it, the more we keep it in front of the public."

Escondido street engineers believe the material is holding up fine, and from the surface looks no different than any other street.

Since Escondido led the way, a limited amount of the material is now being used in road projects elsewhere in the county, but is not specifically mandated.

Joe Goldhammer, materials engineer in the County Public Works Department, said his agency asks its contractors to use recycled asphalt, so it's likely some toilet porcelain is mixed in.

"It is compatible with our specifications," he said. "We give them the option."

But, unlike in Escondido, there are no plans to require that a percentage of toilet porcelain be included in road aggregate.

"We're going to let the marketplace take over," Goldhammer said. " . . . If you legislate things like that, you can legislate people out of business."

Likewise, the California Department of Transportation has no such requirement, but doesn't object to toilet porcelain being part of the base in state roads as long as it meets durability specifications.

Because the old, water-guzzling toilets are a rather finite resource, the state hasn't included recycled toilets in its experiments with non-traditional materials, as it has with tires and glass, according to Bob Doty, chief of Caltrans' Office of Pavement in Sacramento.

"We haven't looked at that particular 'solid waste,' " he said.

Ferguson-Salvati said there were no health concerns in using toilets because the material is not on the surface and it undergoes such rigorous crushing.

She figures the landfill crisis should prompt other agencies and contractors to try it.

"They know it's coming. . . . Everyone's kind of clicking in. Toilets can't be more than 1% of the waste stream up there (at the landfill). But little parts really add up."

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